It’s a cool morning in October when the door to Rex Hohlbein’s Fremont studio swings open. Four Washington State University architecture students crowd into the small entry looking at once curious and nervous.
Hohlbein ’81, solidly Seattle in a plaid shirt and fleece jacket, greets the group, which includes his daughter Jennifer. They have come to Seattle to make presentations in front of professional architects at a firm downtown. One carries an unwieldy printed display he needs to trim. Recalling his own days as an architecture student at WSU, Hohlbein urges him to open it up on the floor and crop it there. In the meantime, he and Jennifer talk about the students’ visit to the well-known Miller Hull Partnership that afternoon and the lecture they would attend that night. The other students soak in the office, visiting with one of Hohlbein’s partners and glancing at photographs of the firm’s completed homes on Vashon Island, in Ellensburg, on Orcas Island, and at Yarrow Point. In one example, an island cabin makes practical use of plywood in the kitchen. In another an Eastern Washington farmhouse radiates off a great room. In a third a traditional-style retreat nestles into a wooded hillside.
While the homes are all different, they share an aesthetic. There’s warm wood detailing inside and out, expansive glass windows, exposed structural components, and deep overhangs—all details of what could be described as Northwest elements of style.
The students are even seeing elements of the style in the 1906 house Hohlbein renovated to serve as his studio. The place sits on a one-way street tucked up against the ship canal. One of his first improvements was a floor-to-ceiling picture window to bring in the subtle Seattle light and feature the view of the Burke-Gilman Trail and the water, people, and boats outside.
His design template includes natural materials, a simple and elegant aesthetic, and building in a way that is sensitive to the region, the neighborhood, and especially the site. It all comes out of the feeling he gets having grown up in the Northwest, he says later. “Seattle was a sleepy city most of my life. We’re not flashy. We’re quiet. We live in a gray world, with subdued, soft light. With such beautiful scenery around us, the thinking is ‘Hey, let’s be a little quieter. Let’s go out and blend in and take it all in.’”
The Hinoki House, a new view home in Bellevue’s 1950s Clyde Hill neighborhood, fits beautifully with the Northwest style. The owners themselves started with a list of classic Northwest desires that included creating an open-concept home within the older neighborhood, using natural materials, and capturing a stunning Lake Washington view. “It was going to be a bigger house to begin with, but I said, ‘Really, you should worry about it being too big,’” says Hohlbein. “There’s a coziness and connectedness that would be lost.”
While the view across the lake is stunning, Hohlbein didn’t want the home to be just about the distant view. “We did not try to line everything up, and did not want to block the views of other people in the neighborhood.” He spent time on the property exploring. It required an approach from a busy street, through an alley, and then a courtyard. He saw it as a migration from a public self to a private self. While the view is the big payoff, he worked to create beautiful spaces and experiences in the house before arriving at the view. “The house should be able to stand on its own.”
A hallmark of the Hinoki house is walls made out of windows. It’s a tradeoff, says Hohlbein. It is perhaps less energy-efficient, but it does different things in different spaces. In the kitchen, it lets in light and views of the trees. In the dining room, it provides a serene scene of the pond and courtyard. But the most wondrous effect is in the living room, where the windows slide away and you feel as if you could walk right out onto the lake.
Hohlbein didn’t come to WSU to study archtiecture. “But I just fell in love with drawing,” he says. “At the end of that first year, I decided to switch.” The new direction gave school new meaning. He lived for his classes and projects. “And I couldn’t wait to get out and practice,” he says.
He loves the process of working with residential clients. “You talk a lot about very personal and important decisions,” he says. “Besides raising kids, building a house is probably the most intense thing adults will sustain. Their hearts and minds are fully engaged.”
And if his clients are seeking to make a statement with their homes, he hopes that it is one of quiet, thoughtful design. “Houses and buildings should be backdrops to peoples’ lives, and secondarily, buildings should be subservient to the landscape.”
A STYLE OF OUR OWN
Architecture in the Pacific Northwest has always had to contend with the environment.
In many parts of the country, the builders of great cities started with flat planes and created their landscapes out of brick and stone, steel and glass. But in the West, a land of mountains, water, forests, and views, the natural landscape usually came first. Here the early architects had to nestle their structures in valleys and along shorelines. Then their neighborhoods climbed the hills of cities like Spokane, Bellingham, Tacoma, and Seattle, always looking to the views around them.
The architects took climate into consideration, orienting to capture much-needed sunlight in winter, and designing sheltering overhangs to protect from the rain. Some might say they were building green long before the notion was in style.
When you see that iconic scenic photograph of the state’s largest city, says Phil Gruen, associate professor at the WSU School of Architecture and Construction Management, it’s the Space Needle with the mountains in the background. “Seattle is the metropolis in the natural environment,” he says.
The same description could easily be extended to other Northwest cities, he adds. Spokane, for example, has the slogan: “Near nature, near perfect.”
Gruen, who teaches history of architecture, is loath to describe one type of architecture as specifically “Northwest.” For each detail there are many examples, and many exceptions. And some are not so great. Indoor shopping malls for an auto-centered culture, for example—Northgate Mall, which was built in 1950, was the first car-focused indoor mall in the country. It was an idea that first happened here, says Gruen, “But nobody would say that it is an example of the Pacific Northwest architecture.”
Still, in other structures, there seems to be a Pacific Northwest idiom, Gruen admits. It’s a particular kind of consciousness that connects the materials, the structure, and the natural environment.
Architects from WSU like Hohlbein have had a hand in shaping the state’s built environment, and in incorporating it into the Northwest landscape, for nearly a century. But it was almost not to be. Decades ago, the fledgling architecture program at Washington State was nearly crushed.
In 1907, Washington’s agricultural college (now WSU) established one of the first programs to train architects on the West Coast (after the University of California at Berkeley). When the college’s early leaders started their search for a chair, architects from the Midwest and East Coast were coming west to help build the new communities. Kirtland Cutter (from Ohio) was designing Arts and Crafts mansions throughout the state, and James Stephen (from Chicago) was creating school buildings in Seattle and Everett after designing Thompson Hall in Pullman in 1893. The four-story Victorian building was constructed out of brick made from clay deposits on campus.
In drafting a plan to train architects in Pullman, the college’s leaders believed that architecture would fit in well among the mechanic arts. They also saw an economical route to building their campus. Rudolph Weaver was hired from the architectural staff of the University of Illinois and immediately took on the design of buildings for Pullman’s campus. “We looked upon it also as a measure of economy to combine these instructional and professional functions in such a department,” wrote President Enoch A. Bryan in his Historical Sketch of the State College.
Weaver’s first project was the president’s house. The thought, according to Bryan, was to try him out on a smaller, less essential structure. Its success is apparent since the Weaver-designed Wilson-Short and Carpenter halls followed in rapid succession. For a few years, both the program and the building progress held up.
But when Ernest O. Holland became president of Washington State College in 1916, the years of growth both for the curriculum and for campus were about to end. A legislative committee from Olympia had visited the college and was surprised to find graduate students in Pullman as well as strong liberal arts and architecture programs. Concerned that the state was already paying too much for higher education, the committee decided that the University of Washington should be acting as a university and that the college in Pullman be reduced to a trade school. To Holland’s dismay, an old friend, the UW’s president Henry Suzzallo, agreed.
Suzzallo and Holland started their friendship as students in 1909 at Columbia University. Holland was best man at Suzzallo’s wedding in 1912. Suzzallo moved west to become president of UW in 1915 and almost immediately encouraged Holland in his pursuit of the Pullman job. At the same time, both men were urging an end to, in Bryan’s words, the “petty rivalry” between the institutions.
But they were overtaken by politics. There were concerns that the schools were duplicating their offerings at great cost to the taxpayers.
In 1921, the state legislature created the Joint Board of Higher Curricula to oversee development of programs for the University of Washington and Washington State. In 1922, UW (which hadn’t established its architecture department until 1914) challenged the state college’s offering of an architecture major. As a result, it was one of several programs deemed “illegal” by the legislature, including commerce, journalism, and forestry.
But according to school records, Pullman found a way around it. By 1928 the degree in architecture became “architecture engineering.” The students would study alongside the school’s construction managers and civil engineers. Because they studied and competed with students in other disciplines, the architects who trained at WSC had a rigorous grounding in engineering—something alumni say made them sought-after assets to their firms.
It took some redesigning on the part of the state college to keep architecture in the mix, but it led to training many hundreds of architects for the state.
While all this was taking place, a Northwest architectural style was emerging, says Phil Jacobson ’52, a retired Seattle architect and professor emeritus of UW’s architecture program. While much of the early building is derivative of architecture from around the country—with Arts and Crafts, Beaux Arts, and International styles—a Northwest aesthetic emerged in the timber framing, exposed wood beams, open spaces, and large windows designed to capture the Northwest light, he says. The developing style is also reflected in how the buildings fit within their site and landscape.
“There is a Northwest school for architecture,” says Jacobson. “In my judgment, it is primarily in the area of residential design. It’s much clearer there than anywhere else.”
After World War II a strong Northwest vernacular really took shape, he explains. Families settled into the Puget Sound region and the demand for new housing skyrocketed. The local architects, unfettered by their clients’ demands for a certain style, not limited to build within established neighborhoods, and freed to use new materials, started pushing further into the landscape. Some beautiful examples include Surrey Downs, a neighborhood of 1950s Northwest-style ranchers built with minimal disturbance to the land by architect Omer Mithün in Bellevue, says Jacobson. Others can be found in communities like Fircrest and University Place in Tacoma and the South Hill in Spokane.
Jacobson, who watched the movement develop, readily lists the key architects of the Northwest school. Among them: Paul Thiry, Omer Mithün, Paul Hayden Kirk, and Fred Bassetti.
Thiry, who is considered a father of modernism in the Pacific Northwest, started off in the 1930s with International-style homes and apartment buildings. As times changed, so did he. By the 1950s and early ’60s his structures were like sculpture. He was the principal architect for the Seattle World’s Fair and can be credited with the Pacific Science Center and the Coliseum. By the time of the 1962 fair, the Pacific Northwest was getting international recognition for its architecture and buildings that connected with the landscape, captured light, and had attention to detail.
While most of their work centers on Puget Sound, Thiry and a number of other architects are represented in Pullman, says WSU’s Gruen. Thiry designed the Regents Hill buildings. Kirk’s trademark bands of windows are evident in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) award-winning red brick French Administration building. And Bassetti built Avery Hall to harmonize with the old quad.
The regional architecture that developed during that time used natural materials, brought in the outdoors, and incorporated some very early “green” practices like economy of materials and building to capture heat and sunlight, says Jacobson. It fits well with today’s Northwest and sustainable aesthetic.
A SUSTAINABLE AESTHETIC
“All local cultures contain an essence that must be discovered or preserved and which expresses the uniqueness of a place. For architects in the Pacific Northwest, that essence is the fundamental understanding of the conditions of ecology and their effect on architectural values and meaning. Significant aspects of this essence lie in local geography, climate, and customs and involve the use and transformation of mimicking of vernacular forms…”
—David Miller ’68, Toward a New Regionalism, Environmental Architecture in the Pacific Northwest
Late at night, back when David Miller ’68 and Robert Hull ’68 were architecture students at WSU, they would sneak into the agricultural buildings around town. “We were interested in how those structures contrasted with the landscape,” says Miller. “We were impressed by the toughness, economy, and directness of this kind of buildings.”
“We wanted an understanding of why things are the way they are in any particular area,” adds Hull, who was fascinated not just with the technology of building the buildings, but how, with materials and orientation, people were adapting them to the area’s hot summers and cold winters.
That and their separate tours in the Peace Corps creating buildings with local materials in Afghanistan and Brazil, helped them hone their practice of developing socially responsible, simple, innovative designs that respond to environmental demands. After working in separate firms for several years, the two in 1977 decided to create their own firm. Since then, it has grown to 50 employees and completed hundreds of projects, including the Shock Physics Lab at WSU and the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. They have received national recognition for their work. In 2003 the AIA gave them the Architecture Firm Award for producing distinguished architecture for more than a decade. “Miller | Hull has defined Pacific Northwest regional modernism in a way that inspires architects around the globe to respond to the unique characteristics of their own regions,” wrote their nominator.
While Miller and Hull had to sneak into barns and grain elevators to look around, last year 18 WSU graduate students were given an assignment to follow in their footsteps. They turned their focus to a grain silo 12 miles south of Pullman in the town of Colton. The silo soon after blew down, says their instructor Taiji Miyasaka, who had been consulting with the owner to find alternatives for the structure. It had been slated to be dismantled and the wood reused in other projects, but it had more than 130,000 nails, too many for salvaging. “I was not trying to advocate that we have to save the building,” says Miyasaka, “but it was an interesting space and interesting structure.” So he sent the students out to document and measure it in different ways.
The 18, including Jennifer Hohlbein and her classmates, logged many hours there inside and out, thinking of ways people might approach and experience it. Two camped on the property for 24 hours to record how light changed at the silo throughout the day. In the end they were all asked to summarize their thoughts and ideas and present them to professional architects at Miller | Hull in Seattle. The nervous students carried their models and displays into the office, which occupies the entire sixth floor of the Polson building downtown.
The studio project is designed to kick-start the students into their graduate thesis project, says Miyasaka. Their main objective is to just spend time on the site and get a feel for it. “These students are not contaminated by the practicality of a project. That gives them an opportunity to leap. It makes for some exciting ideas,” he says.
“I try to get my students to explore by themselves,” he says. “I just hope they keep exploring.”
WSU alumni architects around the Pacific Northwest :: Projects in Washington by architects who studied at the School of Architecture and Construction Management. [+]
Many elements of mid-century architecture are back in vogue. Ada Louise Huxtable, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, may have seen it coming years ago. “There is nothing so totally rejected that we cannot admire it now,” she wrote in the New York Times in 1978.
That was the year architect Stephen Mathison ’67 started work to help preserve the state’s historic properties. A graduate of WSU’s architecture engineering program and UW’s art history program, he landed a job in the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. For the past three decades it has been his responsibility, in part, to advise owners of historic and architecturally significant properties on how to rehabilitate and restore buildings in a way that won’t harm their historical integrity.
Mathison finds it interesting that there is a general interest in building sustainably today. “Many things about historic buildings are sustainable,” he says. Those that date back eight or nine decades have thicker walls and, because they were built before air conditioning, natural ventilation. “Studies have shown that early 20th century buildings are among the most energy efficient.
“And preservationists have long pointed out that the best sustainable project is keeping the existing property,” he says.
The general cutoff for consideration for the state and national registers is 50 years, though certain significant buildings—the Space Needle, for example—may be considered sooner. “Some buildings from the 1950s and early ’60s are now entering the state and federal registries,” says Mathison. Among them are buildings in the brutalist and modernist styles. “There is an underappreciation for these buildings among the general public,” he says. “In many cases the owners would love for them to be removed or improved.”
Just last year, one of Paul Thiry’s Seattle houses, a 1962 concrete and glass waterfront home that was once featured on the cover of Sunset Magazine, was torn down after preservationists failed to find someone who could pay to relocate it.
When the National Historic Preservation Act was created in 1966, it was in the wake of the destruction of the old Penn Station in New York. Now, with the 50-year lag, the eligible buildings are “exactly those buildings that were built that the law was enacted to prevent,” says Mathison. Is it worth saving and renovating those? he asks. “I think that question is going to come to the fore over the next several years.
On the web
Though Miller | Hull has been building in the regional style for decades, and though Miller wrote the book on the new Northwest regionalism, many other WSU alumni are out there exploring the idiom.
Consider some of the recent regional AIA award-winning projects—all with WSU architects in the mix: a Woodinville winery, a Northwest convention center, a Bellevue shoe factory, and Hohlbein’s Clyde Hill view home designed to fit into a 1950s suburb.